Meaningful Christian Jargon

I have spent an extraordinary amount of energy around the word missional the past few years. I discovered the word through the GOCN while I was writing my DMin thesis. I was brought to ACU to teach in their seminary in large part because I represented that conversation in Church of Christ circles. I have consulted with over 30 congregations who are wanting to become missional. I’m getting a stinking PhD in the stuff from Luther Seminary. And now I direct a master’s in missional leadership at Rochester College. I’ve become in people’s minds something of a one-trick pony.

So, I more than most people, have a stake in that word and its use. And I cringe at the ways most people use that word. As an adjective, its come to mean “good.” “That sure is some missional meatloaf.” As a noun, it often means little more than outreach. “We gotta get outside of these church walls and be more missional.” In their use, words tend to change in their meaning.

I’ve changed the way I use the term missional. I hardly ever use it as an adjective before the word “church.” I don’t talk about missional churches so much, as if its a brand with reliable markings. I am more apt to talk about faith communities in a “new missional era, or age.”

All that to say, its not surprising to me when I read someone who thinks we ought to stop using the word, as if misuse of a word is a reason to stop using it. I imagine that the words God, Christ, Trinity, and salvation, to name a few, are misused far more than the word missional. And I doubt we’ll stop using them.

Nadia Bolz-Webber, who I really like, wrote a provocative blog yesterday, “Meaningless Church Jargon.” Basically, she argued that some words become so jargon-y over time that they fail to refer to anything real anymore. “Missional” appears as number one on her list, especially when tied to the word “imagination,” as in “missional imagination.” She lumps my favorite jargon into a list with (gasp) “evangelical piety lingo” and (gasp) words used improperly from a grammatical standpoint, like “disciple as a verb.” (If there’s anything I value about the missional brand, its the avoidance of evangelical piety lingo and the basic use of good grammar. Try using bad grammar around Craig Van Gelder. Or evangelical piety language around Pat Keifert. Pat and Nadia have a lot in common in terms of the language they use instead. I’m just saying).

Anyway, the conclusion of the blog goes something like this–maybe these words once referred to something real, but now they don’t. And we have real lives to describe and impact, and, therefore, we should “all speak of God in clear and simple language.” I wholeheartedly agree that our language should strive for a “fit” with the real life we actually encounter. And I agree that we should try to be clear at all times. I would even say that we should learn not to be so churchy when we speak with others. But I have a tougher time with the word “simple.” The inadequacy of simple language to get at reality, which is exceedingly complex, is the very reason we write poems or come up with metaphors or invent new words in the first place. This kind of language is exactly our effort to come up with a better fit for reality.

Here’s the thing–there is often not a one-to-one correspondence between the language we use and the world in which we live. Moreover, language doesn’t just help us represent things. Language changes how we actually view things. In this sense, language is performative, not just representational. Language can sometimes actually create new realities. I think sometimes getting at what’s real, especially when we talk about God, takes all the language we have and more.

And even jargon has a necessary usefulness. It becomes a kind of shorthand that allows new discoveries or insights to occur within a particular field without rehearsing every argument that got you to that point. The church as a recognizable community will always have jargon, just like cable companies do or scientific communities. The problem is not with jargon per se, but with knowing when you’re speaking to a wider audience. In fact, some of our jargon is even necessary for Christian realities to come fully into view. Part of becoming a Christian is learning to speak of the world differently.

I can be a word Nazi. “Missional as outreach? No soup for you!” (We have a swear jar in our master’s program for anyone who uses the word outreach). And we should attend to our language carefully in an attempt to be clear and to actually refer to real things. But I’m also learning that people mean things when they use language, even when they use it poorly or imprecisely, or when they use it to describe a reality that doesn’t really exist. And all of us do this. All of us. So the trick, for me, is not to disallow uses of language on the front end, but to try to understand each other better regardless of what language we use.

And in its use, some language will go the way of the dodo bird and some language will survive, though likely it will mean something different than what its first users meant. I hope missional survives a little while longer, because it gives me a way of speaking about the changing realities that church leaders actually face. And I so much prefer the word imagination to culture or some other way of speaking about the worlds we share and construct together, so I hope that survives a bit longer as well.

“What language shall I borrow to thank Thee, dearest friend.”

About Mark Love

I am the Dean for the School of Theology and Ministry and Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who is a practicing new monastic in Abilene, TX. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and two amazing granddaughters.
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One Response to Meaningful Christian Jargon

  1. Steve Kenney says:

    Thank you! I’ll expand a bit further to say that in my opinion we should redeem all helpful expressions and forms. It strikes me as a type of unintentional laziness to say “no one understands that phrase anymore” or “it’s become so overused” as a reason to discard it, and not as an impetus to educate and reclaim.

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